How can nonprofits enact successful inclusion strategies for disabled stakeholders?
Successfully including all stakeholders in the life of a nonprofit requires attention to enacting and maintaining inclusive practices.
When traditionally excluded people are included, power imbalances weaken, work environments become more innovative, trust between colleagues increases, and financial performance increases. Diversity and inclusion remain one of the top nine challenges facing the charitable sector as reported by a survey of more than 1,000 diverse individuals, but disabled people are often left out of the inclusion conversation altogether. More than one in four Americans have a diagnosed disability. Nonprofits will be more relevant and more impactful in meeting their missions when they utilize strategies to include disabled stakeholders.*
(I will predominantly utilize Identity-First Language (e.g., “disabled people”) as opposed to Person-First Language (e.g., “people with disabilities''). For decades, many professionals were taught Person-First Language (PFL) as an effort to remove the disability from people's identities, and PFL is still commonly used in the medical profession as well as by parents of disabled individuals, especially in the United States. However, proponents of the disability justice movement posit that disability is not a bad word, and efforts have been made to embrace Identity-First Language (IFL) and to reclaim the word disability itself. IFL is used intentionally here.)
The literature on disability exclusion, discrimination, and inaccessibility is abundant. Organizations in all sectors will benefit when including disabled individuals, yet it’s even more dire for nonprofit organizations to strategically implement inclusion principles. According to a study by RespectAbility, in conjunction with The Chronicle of Philanthropy and The Nonprofit Times, 66% of nonprofit workers reported that their organizations serve people with disabilities and 72% stated that their organizations have publicly committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, only 59% reported organizational events that were always physically accessible, only 30% include requests for accommodations on event registration forms, and only 14% utilize video captions - which are often free and automated.
This disconnect is even more troubling when considering the intersectionality of disability and the diverse missions of nonprofits across the sector. Even nonprofit organizations whose missions do not specifically target individuals with disabilities certainly still have disabled stakeholders. In 2019, 11.4% of nondisabled Americans experienced poverty, while more than double that amount - 25.9% - of disabled Americans were living at or below the poverty threshold. Climate change is expected to affect disabled populations in disproportionate ways. Also, only 38.9% of disabled Americans were employed in 2019, and those that were employed earned a median income that was 17% lower than those that were not disabled.
While it’s true that more than two-thirds of nonprofits report serving those with disabilities (though the intersectionality of disability would likely increase this number), disabled people do not exist simply to be beneficiaries. Nonprofit organizations have much to gain from individuals with disabilities. By engaging disabled stakeholders, nonprofits will have the “disability lens” and will have better relationships with individuals belonging to the disabled and cross-marginalized communities. Nonprofits and stakeholders are often interconnected in a mutually beneficial relationship, and this is as true for disability as it is elsewhere.
Recommendations for leadership and management
- Listen to and believe disabled voices. If an issue of accessibility or ableism is brought forward, then organizations should take it seriously and resist defensiveness. Do not overburden disabled individuals with requests for free labor, however, and hire accessibility consultants when possible.
- Respect self-identifying language. Note a person’s preferred terminology when they refer to themselves with either Person-First Language (PFL) or Identity-First Language (IFL), and respect and adopt their same preference. Both PFL and IFL are approaches designed to respect people with disabilities.
- Utilize inclusive language. Proponents of inclusive language suggest that people use the word “disability” as opposed to euphemisms like “special needs” or “differently-abled” which are often received as condescending or offensive. Stay away from derogatory phrases that victimize disabled people, such as, “he suffers from autism” or, “they are wheelchair-bound.”
- Utilize plain language. All organizations, and especially those whose missions focus on people with disabilities, should prioritize plain language versions of all important information about accessing programs and services. Plain language consultants and strategists are available and should be utilized when possible.
- Update and maintain websites and social media profiles. Disabled Americans use the internet at least as much as nondisabled people, although they experience more barriers to access such as screen reader incompatibility and site colors that prevent colorblind individuals from navigating. 80% of people who use captions are not Deaf or hard of hearing, so all videos should contain the ability to display captions.
- Engage in representative and appropriate storytelling. Nonprofit organizations regularly utilize storytelling as a method of engaging donors and supporters and often focus on stories that appeal to the heart and emotions of the intended audience. However, organizations should ensure that the people whose stories are told are not exploited or stripped of their dignity.
- Offer tele- and video-conference options and accommodations on those platforms. The COVID-19 pandemic brought accessibility of technology to center stage. Google Meet and Zoom now offer live transcription services for free, without the need for third-party applications.
- Ensure accessible events. Consider the layout of the event and venue including arrival, distance between activities, food offerings and logistics, seating for both guests and speakers, and hire accessibility consultants. Other considerations include featuring diverse speakers, offering non-alcoholic drinks, providing financial assistance to attend events, and enforcing a code of conduct with a clear grievance protocol.
- Create environments that exceed ADA-compliance. Endless recommendations exist, and the main takeaway here is that organizations should be forward-thinking and offer some degree of accommodations before stakeholders ask (e.g., flexible seating or a lights-off break room).
- Invite stakeholders to request accommodations so that they can participate fully. Organizations should not only expect stakeholders to request accommodations, but should intentionally invite participants, board members, and staff members to do so.
By implementing inclusion strategies, nonprofits will more fully welcome stakeholders with disabilities; will encompass more diverse and accurately representative populations of staff members, volunteers, and beneficiaries; and will be better positioned and equipped to fulfill their missions.
Nikki Belshe Lanza is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She received her undergraduate degree in music therapy from Sam Houston State University and has owned a music therapy practice in DFW since 2009. She is also founder and president of the board of Fort Worth Music Therapy Fund, a nonprofit whose mission is to increase access to music therapy in Texas. Nikki enjoys making music and spending time outdoors with her husband and two children.